Why Android-powered game consoles are better in theory than in practice

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Some of us here at Pocketnow enjoy a nice summer’s afternoon slaving over a smartphone or tablet, trying to beat the last level in some new game. A few of us went nuts yesterday, over the launch of one of the most highly anticipated mobile games this summer, Asphalt 8.

Suffice it to say, mobile gaming is improving quite rapidly. In just four year’s time, we’ve graduated from platformers and side-scrollers to real 3D graphics that rival console games from less than a decade ago. Riptide GP2, for instance, looks phenomenal and plays as smooth as many of my PS2 and early PS3 racing games. And the graphics are just as nice, if not better (higher-resolution). Dead Trigger and Shadowgun, particularly on Tegra-powered devices, are capable of some impressive gameplay. And games like Modern Combat 4: Zero Hour are promising for the future of mobile gaming.

For the last several years, iOS has been the go-to platform for mobile gaming. Evidence of that can be found in many places, such as the immensely vast game library in App Store or GameStop announcing it would sell iPhones in 2011.

But as Android manufacturers are prone to shorter product cycles and, thus, faster turnaround times on new products bearing new chipsets, the hardware on Android platforms has become more adept to graphic-intensive gaming. Not to mention, the open nature of the platform makes it easy for manufacturers to fine tune the software to their liking and offer their own game catalogs.

shieldThis year alone, we have seen countless mobile gaming platforms, devices, and accessories. Two of the most notable are dedicated consoles, one portable and one not: the NVIDIA Shield and OUYA.

OUYA was a Kickstarter campaign I backed last year, with the promise of bringing mobile gaming out of the shadows and into your living room. Sure, that sort of kills the nature of “mobile” gaming, but that wasn’t the point. It promised to bring bigger titles and more attention and excitement to Android, a mobile platform. Its specifications aren’t impressive, it doesn’t look all that interesting, and the idea that it could bring AAA titles to a mobile platform was laughable, at best.

But OUYA is affordable, and it’s all about openness. It was built for developers, hackers, and gamers alike, which is why I backed the project, even if I knew it was never going to deliver some surreal, exciting gaming experience. It arrived, I got excited, I plugged it in, played a few games, had a few hours of fun, realized there wasn’t much to it, tweaked a few things, side-loaded my own games and apps, and turned it back off.

I had my fun, made my $100 worth it, and moved on. It now collects dust beside my Nexus Q on my entertainment system.

Not long after, the NVIDIA Shield arrived. Admittedly, I was much more excited about the Shield, as any mobile game enthusiast should be. With a Tegra 4 inside, nice display, enormous battery, and 360-like controller, what’s not to like?

Actually, there’s a simple answer to that question and the same question about the OUYA: game selection.

In fact, this is the problem with practically any and all dedicated gaming consoles for Android. Each console manufacturer wants its own corner of the market for mobile gaming, so it builds its own library and makes deals with a few developers, in hopes others will fall in line. Except, they don’t – at least not quickly enough for it to matter to … anyone.

shieldThe mobile industry moves too quickly for anyone to get too comfortable with any one device. A $300 dedicated and future-proofed handled such as the Shield may change that, at least for a small number of people who will actually buy one. But currently, there are only 57 titles in the Shield Store. When I had it, there were even less than that – no more than 30. And let me be very clear. Only a small fraction of those 30 even remotely looked interesting: Dead Trigger and Shadowgun (both of which I had already played countless times), Zombie Driver, Skiing Fred, and Sonic.

With both OUYA and the Shield, you can install any application from Google Play. The Shield runs a mostly stock version of Android, and comes pre-packaged with Google Play, so it’s as simple as downloading the games and apps. With OUYA, you will need to use the browser to download apps or use a thumb drive to side-load.

You would immediately think this opens up a world of possibilities. But it doesn’t, because the Android gaming platform is fragmented. Ice Rage, which is available on the OUYA game catalog and Google Play, doesn’t have controller support from Google Play. It does, however, for OUYA, meaning you have to play it with the touchscreen controls on the Shield. The Modern Combat series supports the MOGA gamepads, but not the Shield. In fact, the games are not even compatible with the Shield. And the same sort of hit or miss compatibility spreads across all the different games and consoles.

It’s a nightmare market in dire need of a single standard that pulls game availability directly from Google Play. Forking Android at every turn to promote your own gaming system is illogical, nonsensical. It spreads game developers even more thin and creates an overall worse experience for mobile gamers on Android.

shield-marioIn the end, you end up downloading a host of emulators for older gaming consoles and loading your storage space up with ROMs from classic games. Then you spend a few hours tweaking the button configuration to enjoy an hour or so of your favorite games of pastime and move on, because you realized you could have just done this with your existing smartphone or tablet with an old PS3 controller.

Game developers need to make one version of each game and sell it directly from Google Play with all the compatibility in one package, rather than succumbing to these individual, niche devices that will ultimately be forgotten about in a few month’s time.

I’ve ordered a MOGA Pro Controller for my own personal use, but imagine its dedicated game catalog will be no different from the rest.

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About The Author
Taylor Martin
Based out of Charlotte, NC, Taylor Martin started writing about technology in 2009 while working in wireless retail. He has used BlackBerry off and on for over seven years, Android for nearly four years, iOS for three years, and has experimented with both webOS and Windows Phone. Taylor has reviewed countless smartphones and tablets, and doesn't go anywhere without a couple gadgets in his pockets or "nerd bag." In his free time, Taylor enjoys playing disc golf with friends, rock climbing, and playing video games. He also enjoys the occasional hockey game, and would do unspeakable things for some salmon nigiri. For more on Taylor Martin, checkout his Pocketnow Insider edition.| Google+